Sleep Paralysis, Extraordinary Experiences, and Belief in the Supernatural

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Gerhard Mayer1 & Max Fuhrmann2 
1Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany 
2University of Marburg, Marburg, Germany 
[email protected] 

We investigated sleep paralysis (SP) with an online questionnaire and used a selected sample of subjects who had had at least one SP experience, with a total of 380 subjects. On average, the participants experienced 10–20 SP episodes. We created our own questionnaire on SP experiences by taking items from two already existing questionnaires, the Waterloo Sleep Experience Survey (WSES; Cheyne & Rueffer, 1999) and the Unusual Sleep Experiences Questionnaire (USEQ; Paradis et al., 2009) and adding some items of our own given our emphasis on interpretation, coping strategies, and paranormal aspects of SP. In addition, we have applied three further questionnaires, the Fragebogen zur Phänomenologie außergewöhnlicher Erfahrungen (PAGE-R-II, in press; see Fach et al., 2013, for the first, longer version) to measure extraordinary experiences; a German translation of the Belief in the Supernatural Scale (BitSS; Schofield et al., 2018); and a German translation (Ritz et al., 1993) of the Tellegen Absorption Scale (TAS; Tellegen & Atkinson, 1974) to measure the personality trait absorption. 

We presented first descriptive results of quantitative data with a poster at the 2019 PA convention in Paris (cf. Mayer & Fuhrmann, 2021). One of our research questions concerned the connection between the frequency of SP experiences and extraordinary experiences in general, and belief in the supernatural. The often bizarre and disturbing quality of the experience, the lack of familiar cultural patterns of interpretation in our society, and the accompanying somatic and mental circumstances link SP experiences to the realm of extraordinary experiences (ExEs) and altered states of consciousness (ASC). 

SP is usually experienced as very unpleasant and anxiety-provoking. In addition of being unable to move, many of the concerned have auditive, visual, or tactile perceptions such as hearing voices, seeing strange objects or entities of various kinds, feeling pressure or weight on the chest, being choked, feelings of floating or falling, out-of-body experiences, etc. From the point of view of sleep medicine, the specific quality of such experiences is considered hallucinatory and harmless, and therefore does not require greater attention. However, Belz and Fach (2012, 2015) took a different approach. They included SP as a specific ExE in their model of fundamental categories of exceptional phenomena. They theoretically derived four classes of ExEs, assigned to the four quadrants formed by the dimensions “external–internal” and “coincidence–dissociation.” In their model, SP is placed in the quadrant built by the external and the dissociation poles, i.e., experienced as external and disconnected from normal body function. We used their questionnaire, the PAGE-R-II, to assess the extent to which people with SP have had other extraordinary experiences. We expected positive correlations between the frequency of SP and the experience of “External Phenomena” and “Dissociation Phenomena.” This hypothesis was confirmed regarding the “dissociation” pole but not regarding the “external–internal” dimension. 

Together with some other findings, this led to the assumption that there are two main types of experiencing SP: a “classic” one associated with anxiety and an external attentional focus, and another one with more inward focus, more often associated with positive feelings. We explored this thesis by conducting two factor analyses. With the first, we reduced the 10 items on the list of feelings and emotions experienced during SP to the three emotion factors: a “happiness–curiosity” factor, a “fear–pain” factor, and an “other fears–feelings” factor. In a second step, we computed a factor analysis on the so-called hallucination factors found by Cheyne et al. (1999): the emotion factors, the four subscales of the PAGE, and the TAS. The 3-component-solution suggests two general types of SP experiences as suggested above. However, this hypothesis requires further investigations. 

Many Western scientists consider SP experiences to be one of the sources and causes of human belief in ghosts due to the specific perceptions mentioned above. Based on previous research, we expected a positive correlation between belief in the paranormal and frequency of SP, using a German translation of the BitSS. This hypothesis was not confirmed. The absence of significant correlations between supernatural beliefs and frequency of SP in our study tend not to support the assumption that SP is a major source of human belief in ghosts – at least this is true for our sample coming from a secular Western society.  

Belz, M., & Fach, W. (2012). Theoretical reflections on counseling and therapy for individuals reporting ExE. In W. H. Kramer, E. Bauer, & G. H. Hövelmann (Eds.), Perspectives of clinical parapsychology: An introductory reader (pp. 168–198). Stichting Het Johan Borgman Fonds. 

Belz, M., & Fach, W. (2015). Exceptional experiences (ExE) in clinical psychology. In E. Cardeña, J. Palmer, & D. Marcusson-Clavertz (Eds.), Parapsychology: A handbook for the 21st century (pp. 364–379). McFarland. 

Cheyne, J. A., & Rueffer, S. D. (1999). Waterloo Unusual Sleep Experiences Questionnaire—Extended version. Unpublished manuscript. 

Cheyne, J. A., Newby-Clark, I. R., & Rueffer, S. D. (1999). Relations among hypnagogic and hypnopompic experiences associated with sleep paralysis. Journal of Sleep Research, 8(4), 313–317. 

Fach, W., Atmanspacher, H., Landolt, K., Wyss, T., & Rössler, W. (2013). A comparative study of exceptional experiences of clients seeking advice and of subjects in an ordinary population. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 65. 

Mayer, G., & Fuhrmann, M. (2021). A German online survey of people who have experienced sleep paralysis. Journal of Sleep Research, DOI: 1.1111/jsr.13509 

Paradis, C., Friedman, S., Hinton, D. E., McNally, R. J., Solomon, L. Z., & Lyons, K. A. (2009). The assessment of the phenomenology of sleep paralysis: The Unusual Sleep Experiences Questionnaire (USEQ). CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 15(3), 220–226. 

Ritz, T., Maß, R., & Dahme, B. (1993). Tellegen Absorption Scale—Deutsche Fassung: Das Persönlichkeitsmerkmal Absorption (I). Theorie und Forschungsstand. Arbeiten aus dem Psychologischen Institut III der Universität Nr. 2. 

Schofield, M. B., Baker, I. S., Staples, P., & Sheffield, D. (2018). The creation and validation of the Belief in the Supernatural Scale. Journal of Parapsychology, 82(1), 41–64. 

Tellegen, A., & Atkinson, G. (1974). Openness to absorbing and self-altering experiences (“absorption”), a trait related to hypnotic susceptibility. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 83, 268–277. 

Course Instructor

Gerhard Mayer
Gerhard Mayer Author

Gerhard Mayer studied psychology, sociology, and philosophy. Since 1996, he has been working as a researcher at the IGPP in Freiburg, Germany. His research interests concern cultural studies relating to the border areas of psychology, shamanism, magical practices and beliefs, the biographical integration of extraordinary experiences, and scientific approaches to astrology. He is director of the Gesellschaft für Anomalistik and chief editor of the Journal of Anomalistics.

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  1. Very informative! I didn’t realize that Sleep Paralysis could be defined in so many different ways. It always seemed to be like the image on the right where there is a sensed pressure or body paralysis. Your talk gave me some good insight on additional definitions and how some people can actually have pleasant experiences. Interesting project, Gerhard.

    1. Thanks, John!
      It was actually an interesting result of our survey. We knew isolated reports about such positive experiences in the literature, mainly from Japan. But to my knowledge, we were the first to systematically investigate this aspect. Another aspect that has hardly been studied so far concerns the question of which coping strategies the affected persons use. This part of the study has yet to be evaluated. I am also currently supervising a master’s thesis on this topic.

  2. I was very interested in what you have discovered, in terms of the two separate forms of sleep paralysis. I have been an experiencer of this phenomena since childhood. Due to what I have been told by entities during some of these experiences, and to precognitive information I gleaned during several experiences, I have developed a strong interest in so-called UFOs/UAPs and also in the subject of precognition. Thank you.

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